The task at hand for Penn State is, frankly, an enormous one.
The Nittany Lions head to No. 1 Ohio State to take on the Buckeyes at 8 p.m. on Saturday night, and while the rest of the nation may consider that to be a prodigious challenge, head coach James Franklin and his team are calling it an “opportunity” — one that the magnitude of which was brought up just once internally this week.
“I did say (on Sunday), ‘Hey, what an unbelievable opportunity we have this week, being able to go play at Ohio State against the No. 1 team in the country. What a great opportunity,’” said Franklin on Tuesday.
“And then after that, it won’t be discussed the rest of the week. … There will be enough of that from the outside.”
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Penn State has been practicing for the prime time stage all week, even scouting out the music the Buckeyes usually play during games and pumping it, coupled with crowd noise, into the practice fields.
Atmosphere aside, how the Nittany Lions come out of the gate to start the game, and then to start the second half, will be crucial. Ohio State has scored 40 percent of its points in the first half of games, and just 38 of a total 89 first-half points in the opening quarter. Penn State’s defense has allowed just 14 combined first-quarter points in six games.
“I think if we play the way we did, you know, come out early and make plays, and then finish strong the second half, it’s going to help,” said defensive end Garrett Sickels.
Turnovers, too, could help decide this one. Penn State is plus-8 in turnover margin this season, tied for eighth-best in the nation. The Nittany Lions have just two fumbles lost and two interceptions so far this year, and recovered eight fumbles alongside four picks, while the Buckeyes have thrown seven interceptions and lost six fumbles.
“I think (turnover margin) has been huge in our development and our opportunities to be successful,” said Franklin.
Three Keys to See
The biggest goal for Penn State is to protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg against Buckeyes junior defensive end Joey Bosa, who is regarded as one of the best defensive linemen in the country, and senior defensive tackle Adolphus Washington. Both are big, fast and experienced, and have helped Ohio State combine for 19 sacks in six games.
Backup center Wendy Laurent filled in for a hurt Angelo Mangiro last week. Mangiro is the most experienced of all the linemen and, according to coaches and teammates, is a “calming presence” in a unit that contains mostly sophomores and JuCo transfer Paris Palmer, so, if Mangiro doesn’t play against Ohio State, the chance for error increases exponentially.
The rest of the offense will perform as the line performs. If they provide adequate time for Hackenberg to throw, receivers will need to find the separation that’s been missing against opposing secondaries this season so far.
Ohio State’s secondary is aggressive, albeit missing depth due to injury, especially at safety. The Buckeyes’ pass defense has eight interceptions and an efficiency rating of 89.97, allowing just six passing touchdowns and 82 completions off 178 opposing attempts.
“It’s almost like their corners have no responsibility whatsoever in the run,” said Franklin on Tuesday. “They basically play press-man, almost all the time, and they lock those guys down, those guys are cover guys…big, long, physical guys that can really run. They do a really good job of eliminating the big plays from that perspective.”
Hackenberg has thrown for seven touchdowns in six games and averages 181 passing yards per game. His top target, Chris Godwin, averages 4.5 catches per game for 65 yards; behind Godwin is DaeSean Hamilton, who averages 2.8 catches per game for 34.5 yards.
Freshman Brandon Polk, frankly, is the only receiver that has managed to show separation in coverage. Polk, one of the fastest players on the team, blew by his coverage on a jet sweep fake-turned-wheel route last weekend for a 39-yard touchdown grab.
On the ground, Franklin said he knows whether true freshman running back Saquon Barkley, largely responsible for the brief spark seen in Penn State’s offense before he suffered an injury against San Diego State, will play on Saturday — but he’s not telling.
“It’ll be like Christmas morning, Saturday, waiting to see whether he’ll play,” said Franklin on Wednesday night.
Penn State’s defense, led by the nation’s leader in sacks, defensive end Carl Nassib, will face its toughest test in the multiple athletic weapons Ohio State has on offense.
Buckeyes starting quarterback Cardale Jones has thrown for 1,158 yards and seven touchdowns, with five interceptions, and backup J.T. Barrett is a dual-threat quarterback who Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has been sending in during red-zone situations, and went three-for-three last week on his way to helping the Buckeyes score 18 times out of 22 red-zone visits so far this season.
Over the summer, the Buckeyes were deciding between three quarterbacks — Braxton Miller was also a talent at that position. Instead of potentially sitting out, Miller converted to receiver. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior has 13 catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns, and is explosive and slippery — if he doesn’t at first have space, he creates it with spin-moves and quick-steps.
“You look at Braxton — we’ve watched him on film — he’s playing wide receiver right now like he’s played wide receiver his whole life,” said Franklin. Penn State has allowed just three passing touchdowns all season, and 952 yards on 93 completions by opposing quarterbacks.
Running back Ezekiel Elliot is a force as well, with 835 yards and 10 touchdowns on 121 attempts, for an average of 6.9 yards per carry. The Buckeyes have 1,380 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns, four of which have come from Barrett and Jones running in the score themselves.
To cap it all, the Buckeyes’ offensive line is one of the nation’s biggest and most experienced units. They’ve allowed just seven sacks in six games and are led by 315-pound senior (and projected first-round NFL pick) Taylor Decker.
Penn State’s defense will have to force turnovers and stop explosive plays — something that’s been emphasized all year long.
“That’s going to be really important this week, because they are fast. They are fast at wideout. They are fast at running back. They are big and physical on the offensive line,” said Franklin.
Because of the explosive potential of Ohio State’s offense, Penn State’s special teams absolutely has to cut out the inconsistency seen on a week-to-week basis.
Against Indiana, punter Daniel Pasquariello was excellent, averaging 44 yards per punt with plenty of hang time to pin back the Hoosiers, who were crippled by the loss of their first and second-string quarterbacks by the time the game was finished. But prior, the length and hang time of punts from either Pasquariello or Chris Gulla, have been choppy at best. Against Army, Gulla’s first two punts combined for 25 yards, and the two combined for a 32-yard average with no touchbacks and none landing within the 20-yard line.
Joey Julius, the Nittany Lions’ starting kicker, missed two consecutive extra-point attempts before getting pulled for backup Tyler Davis last week. Franklin said, however, that Julius “is our guy” and that Penn State “isn’t in the business” of changing its mind on a player after a couple of mistakes.